Thanos killed half the universe this past summer, and it was awful. The good news is that he used a magical gold glove to do it, so for the good guys, restoring reality to working order this coming summer will be pretty straightforward. Peter B. Parker (a delightfully fried Jake Johnson), the most slovenly and exhausted of six Spider-Man characters in the new animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, would call this magical gold glove a “goober.”
There is always a “goober”—a thumb drive, a launch code, a scientific field’s foremost expert—that can repel or neutralize the existential threat, which is another thing that comes standard in comic book films. These movies proceed in such a tidy fashion that Parker even predicts to his protégé Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) a specific line of dialogue. It’s the one that usually pops up right before a henchman fails a supervillain for the last time. “Watch this … he’s gonna say: You have 24 hours,” Parker tells Morales. This gets big laughs because hey, I mean, it’s really funny.
Into the Spider-Verse is concerned with the state of the comic book movie like most comic book movies sort of have to be now, but not overly concerned, because they’re comic book movies, which are fun and largely harmless. This is one of many qualities that make Into the Spider-Verse, pretty comfortably, one of the best animated features of the year, and it’s not much of a stretch to crown it as one of the best superhero movies ever made, full stop. Here’s a brief synopsis of the plot: Kingpin, motivated by personal loss, funds the construction of a super collider so he can yank his dead wife and child back from the ether. This will also create a black hole under New York, which will obviously destroy everything. Morales, and the rest of his Spider-friends pulled into his dimension as a byproduct of Kingpin’s machinations, attempt to stop it. Let’s move on to the important stuff.
What Infinity War delivered, aside from 50 percent down on the payoff of a decade of MCU films, was the tone and structure of a big, glossy crossover comic event. One universe became big enough to hold a handful of titles and each character carried in their own baggage, one-liners, and theme music. Then, there were explosions, and finally resolution, or the promise of it. Spider-Verse goes one step further and recreates the sensation of reading a crossover comic. It uses a slightly sluggish frame rate and hard lines, which gives the film an imaginative, peripatetic style, and makes watching it, from moment to moment, like following an ellipses across a page-turn. (It’s so gorgeous and enthralling and perfect that Sony wants to patent the animation style.) A big bonus is the idea Spider-Verse inspires: that the hero of the story could actually be anyone, especially since half of the characters aren’t blond white guys named Chris.
OK, there is one blond white guy, voiced by Chris Pine. (Also, the cast: Brian Tyree Henry! Lily Tomlin! Kathryn Hahn! Mahershala Ali! Hailee Steinfeld!) Pine is the original Spider-Man, the idealized one recognizable to people who’ve never picked up a 20-page issue—agile, unflappable, good-looking, the guy that always cracks wise and gets back up. Into the Spider-Verse sort of sighs itself awake as Peter Parker tells us early on, again, that he can stick to walls and stop subway trains by force. “OK, let’s do this one. Last. Time.”
Co-writers Phil Lord (who brought you The Lego Movie and both Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs movies) and Rodney Rothman (who brought you 22 Jump Street) had to find a way around the problem of Parker, his girlfriend, his double life, and his moral clarity, since Spider-Verse was always going to be a Miles Morales joint. Morales lives in Brooklyn, he’s biracial and bilingual, both of his parents are still alive and love him very much, and you probably just need to see how his motivations and position in this tale are rendered, because it’s pretty great. However, I will say this: The origin story, as a concept, is tired. The origin story, as a running gag that also moves the plot along, is wired. We have done all of this before, and the writers were keenly aware of that. Like a “goober” or an existential threat in a superhero movie, there’s also always a defining element of tragedy, a gimmick, and a daily schedule that involves two jobs, one of which no one can know about. “It just got interesting and fun to repeat [the origin story trope] and to use that almost thematically to show how all the characters are interesting or similar and different,” said Rothman in a recent interview. “It just happened organically.”
The word organic ably describes Into the Spider-Verse. It’s delightful, and successful at so many different things at once: a gorgeous feat of filmmaking, a thoughtful and not-at-all fussy dissection of the genre, and a compelling account of how an ordinary kid becomes acquainted with unfathomable power and rises to meet his newfound responsibilities. As the credits finish rolling, there’s a message from the creators of Spider-Man, the late greats Stan Lee and Steve Ditko: “Anyone can wear the mask.” It’s essential to the appeal of the character, but recently—like as recently as two hours before I read it—the idea that superheroes are people just like us has never rung truer. We first meet Miles sitting in his bedroom, doodling in his notebook with headphones on, clumsily tracing a Swae Lee melody with his best falsetto. His dad calls him from the other room and he clears his throat, and his voice drops a few octaves, out of embarrassment.
Damn, I thought. Spider-Man is me.